Militants took an Egyptian diplomat hostage Friday, saying the abduction was a warning to Egypt to rebuff appeals by Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi for help with security in Iraq.
Al-Jazeera television broadcast a videotape of the diplomat, whom it identified as Mohamed Mamdouh Helmi Qutb. He was surrounded by half a dozen figures wearing black hoods and white headbands.
The kidnappers said their actions were "in response to comments by Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif that Egypt is ready to offer its security experience" to Iraq, al-Jazeera reported. Allawi was in Egypt on Thursday, trying to persuade Arab countries to contribute to a security force that would guard U.N. personnel if the United Nations were to send its staff back to Baghdad.
In Cairo, Foreign Ministry officials said Egypt had made no pledge of forces to Allawi. "Sending any forces or military personnel to Iraq was not a matter that has been proposed at all," the official Egyptian news agency MENA said.
The abduction of Qutb, the first diplomat among the more than 70 people kidnapped since April, was confirmed by the Egyptian Embassy in Baghdad. He was identified as the embassy's third-ranking official.
Many kidnap victims have been released, but Bulgarian authorities were studying a body and severed head found Wednesday on the banks of the Tigris River to determine whether they were the remains of a kidnapped Bulgarian truck driver.
Another videotape delivered to al-Jazeera Friday said seven foreign truck drivers taken hostage this week would be executed in 48 hours unless the Kuwaiti company that employs the men -- three Indians, three Kenyans and an Egyptian -- ended its operations in Iraq.
Fifteen months after the United States declared an end to hostilities in Iraq, kidnappings and assassinations are almost daily events, carried out by a shadowy resistance that has proven to be surprisingly tenacious.
A retired Iraqi general who ran a job center with U.S. help was assassinated Friday in the northern city of Mosul, and two U.S. soldiers were killed when their convoy was hit by a roadside bomb Thursday night in Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. Warplanes carried out another bombing in Fallujah in a search for a Jordanian rebel who has boasted of kidnappings and beheadings.
An Iraqi was killed by a roadside bomb near Samarra on Friday afternoon, according to a military spokesman.
The Defense Department identified a soldier killed Thursday by a roadside bomb as Pfc. Nicholas H. Blodgett, 21, of Wyoming, Mich. It also announced that Marine Lance Cpl. Mark E. Engel, 21, of Grand Junction, Colo., died Thursday at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Tex., of wounds he received in Iraq on July 6. A soldier killed Wednesday was identified as Spec. Danny B. Daniels, II, 23, of Varney, W.Va.
More than 900 U.S. military personnel have died since the start of the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
In Mosul, Salim Majeed Blesh, 58, a retired Iraqi general, was shot and killed along with a neighbor as the two men walked to Friday prayers, according to Iraqi police. Blesh, a former top commander, had worked with U.S. occupation officials to set up a job center for Iraqis. Assassins have targeted Iraqis who worked on American reconstruction and occupation projects.
Near Baghdad, 10 members of a large family returning from a wedding party were killed Thursday night when their crowded van tried to pass another vehicle and struck a U.S. tank, according to a military spokesman. Ten Iraqis were injured.
Also in Baghdad, a roadside bomb exploded under a bus Friday, wounding the driver and eight passengers.
U.S. warplanes struck again at Fallujah, targeting forces that the U.S. military described as fighters for Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian guerrilla who is among the most-wanted insurgents in Iraq. Five Iraqis, including three children, were wounded in the bombardment, according to local reports.
U.S. Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, the chief spokesman for the military here, said in a statement that seven such bombardments in the past month "have eroded Zarqawi of support and ability to carry out terror attacks."
In the southern city of Kufa, a sermon at Friday prayers by a rebellious Shiite Muslim cleric, Moqtada Sadr, laid bare a split between him and his chief supporter in Iran, Ayatollah Kadhim Haeri. Sadr, a young cleric whose militia controls the Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, has traditionally relied on support from Haeri, whose blessing has entitled Sadr to collect a large amount of tithings from Shiites in Iraq.
Haeri, according to Arabic news sources, signaled July 10 that Sadr was no longer authorized to collect the tithings on his behalf. And Haeri reportedly disputed the legitimacy of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
In his sermon, his first in four weeks, Sadr responded defensively.
"I suffered under Saddam [Hussein's] regime. Is this how I get paid for the resistance against the occupiers?" Sadr said.
The split could mean a significant loss of moral authority for Sadr, but it is unclear whether it will seriously weaken his power base. His bold opposition to the U.S. occupation and military have won him a following among poor Shiites.
In a Sunni mosque in Baghdad, the Um al-Qurra, the Friday sermon included a warning to U.S. troops to end their encirclement of Samarra.
"Americans isolated Samarra two weeks ago with tanks, armored cars and soldiers," said Sheikh Ahmad Abdul Ghafour Samarrii.
"Open the roads to Samarra," he appealed. "Depart from the policy of collective punishment. . . . Enough mockery. Enough cheating. Leave our land."